BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In a tale of two strategies, it would be Scott McLaughlin’s strategy that would pay off as the Kiwi driver led the race’s final 20 laps to get his first win of the season.
Pole sitter Romain Grosjean led 57 of the 90 allotted laps, but when Grosjean, battling McLaughlin for the lead, went wide in Turn 5 while trying to defend the lead, McLaughlin pounced a few turns later making the race-winning move for the lead.
“I knew it was going to be hard passing him,” McLaughlin said. “It was a matter of me biding my time. I asked the guys, Where are we at on fuel? Had a bit more than him. Allowed me to pressure him a bit more.”
The fuel strategy was split amongst the drivers in the field as was the tire strategy.
Grosjean, setting a blistering pole speed in qualifying, chose to start on the quicker red tires and from the outset of the green flag chose to push for a two-stop strategy. Contrary to the Penske drivers in McLaughlin, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power, who committed to a three-stop strategy.
“We talked about that in the strategy meeting this morning,” said McLaughlin. “Sort of knew what I had to do. At the end of the day, I see a 10th of what everyone else sees on the stand. I know I’ve got the best guys in pit lane calling my strategy. I just trust them.”
The strategies took shape when Newgarden and a handful of other drivers pitted on Lap 15. They switched from primary blacks to alternate reds. McLaughlin followed suit.
Newgarden would lead about six laps but he struggled through the race with suspension issues after touching Felix Rosenqvist in the opening laps. He would end up finishing 15th, dropping to 6th in the points.
Grosjean regained the lead, but continued having to save fuel in order to make the two-stop strategy work.
The race’s only caution came on Lap 39 when Sting Ray Robb stalled on the course, a caution that played well into the hands of the drivers on the three-stop strategy. McLaughlin used that caution to get back in position towards the front.
But it would be the final round of pitstops that would tell the tail.
On Lap 61 Grosjean pitted to try and avoid an overcut attempt by McLaughlin. Mclaughlin pitted a couple of laps later in his attempt to overcut, which for most of a lap worked, but Grosjean running on warmer tires was able to overtake McLaughlin in a brilliant move coming to the start/finish line to regain the lead.
For 11 laps, McLaughlin sat and waited for a mistake from Grosjean who had exhausted all of his push-to-pass. That mistake came on Lap 72 when Grosjean overcooked his entry into Turn 5. This allowed McLaughlin to close and eventually overtake Grosjean.
McLaughlin boasted about the competition with Grosjean after the race.
“I think we touched when he passed me a little bit. But it was fair game,” he said. “It was awesome racing, man. It was exactly what INDYCAR was. Yeah, ain’t no procession here, that’s for sure. It was a lot of fun.”
“The grip came on the very outside of the end of the race for some reason. It’s the beauty of it,” Grosjean explained of McLaughlin’s pass. “You have to adapt a lot during the race, your driving style. Those races are tough. They’re very tough, demanding. That’s the way it goes.”
The victory for McLaughlin is his fourth career win in the NTT IndyCar Series. He is also the fourth different winner so far, which has the points race for the season championship tightening up as the series heads to Indianapolis for the GMR Grand Prix ahead of the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500.
The win leapfrogged McLaughlin into the 4th spot in the points. Despite a 10th-place finish, Marcus Ericsson remains the leader in the point standings now just 3 points ahead of Pato O’Ward, who after starting third finished fourth.
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